An Artist's Truck That's No More Than It Needs Be

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PUTNAM VALLEY, N.Y.

SHOULD you ever find yourself in this town, about an hour and a half north of Manhattan, and come across an old white pickup with its hood and tailgate painted black, you might chalk up the two-tone paint job to a D.I.Y. project gone awry.

But you'd be wrong. In fact, the handiwork was performed decades ago by one of the pillars of the Minimalist art movement, Donald Judd.

Judd, who stopped making paintings in the 1960s and died in 1994, was known for his geometrically precise sculptures and installations. In 1971, he moved from New York City to Marfa, then a dying town in the high desert of West Texas, less than 100 miles from Mexico.

"Because of the glare, he painted the hood black to kill the reflection," said Evan Hughes, who bought the 1972 Dodge Power Wagon 200 from Judd's son, Flavin, in 2000.

Judd didn't stop there. He painted the tailgate and the bumpers black, which gave the truck its distinctive look.

The doors of the truck bear the symbol of one of Judd's ranches in Marfa, which is known for its treeless -- and flat -- landscape.

"I don't think it ever went up a hill before it got here," said Mr. Hughes, referring to the very different terrain in the upstate area where he lives.

One brisk Sunday afternoon this fall, the old Dodge was parked in Mr. Hughes's driveway under a tall canopy of elm, maple and oak, all a week or so away from peak color. Mr. Hughes, a furniture maker, wore a black shirt, bluejeans and black shoes.

When he spoke of the truck, he sounded like a docent leading a museum tour. In many ways, the truck is an artifact.

"It's pretty much as it was," he said.

He noted some points of interest: a winch on the bumper spooled with 100 feet of cable, passes for Judd's trips into Mexico on the rear window and a first-aid kit mounted on the driver's door.

Unsnapping the wire clasp that holds the tin cover in place, he demonstrated that the kit was still fully stocked (with, among other things, ammonia inhalants, aspirin and an eye patch).

In a compartment along the side of the truck, Mr. Hughes dusted off old engine belts, an owner's manual and a rusted metal container that could have been used for ammunition. He had removed a gun rack when he bought the truck, and to make more room in the cargo bed, Mr. Hughes also removed a toolbox and a water tank.

"This was really equipped for the desert," he said. "In case you get lost or stuck, there's nothing for miles."

Before Judd arrived, there was not much to know about Marfa aside from two pieces of trivia: it was a location for the 1956 film "Giant," one of James Dean's three starring roles, and it was where the mysterious phenomenon of the Marfa Lights, unpredictable flickerings in the sky of unknown origin, were sometimes seen.

Then Judd moved into town.

"He called it a featureless landscape," Mr. Hughes said. "There are mountain ranges in the background, but there's no real landmarks."

Judd bought ranches, abandoned buildings and the remains of Fort D. A. Russell, a closed military base. With the help of the Dia Art Foundation, he turned the base into a museum, naming it the Chinati Foundation, after the mountains.

"He grew dissatisfied with New York because it didn't have big enough spaces or pristine enough spaces for his artwork," Mr. Hughes said. "One of his ideas about art was to have context, sort of the perfect sculpture in the perfect space and kept that way."

Mr. Hughes was quick to note that he was not a Judd worshiper, but he does identify with the artist, who dabbled in furniture design.

"My interests have always been in art, architecture and furniture -- together. Which fits perfectly with what Donald Judd has always been into," he said.

Mr. Hughes is a soft-spoken man with chestnut hair and close-trimmed beard. He has been a furniture designer for 32 years, since graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology. He moved to Brooklyn in 1990 and, based on the recommendation of a friend, he made his way to Marfa in 1997. After he bought an apartment complex downtown that required some work, he went looking for a truck to haul material for the renovation.

The connection to the truck, Mr. Hughes said, came through his friendship with Judd's son, Flavin, who was looking for practical transportation after the birth of his second child.

Mr. Hughes bought the Dodge, which had a little more than 68,000 miles on it at the time, for less than $5,000.

Though Mr. Hughes and his wife, Lynn McCary, an event planner, have nothing but fondness for Marfa, their lives and jobs continued to pull them back to New York.

In addition to building furniture, Mr. Hughes fabricates art pieces. He recently built sculptures for the artist Richard Artschwager for a show in Rome. He also built pieces that were included in an Artschwager retrospective at the Whitney Museum this month.

Finding time to visit Marfa is not easy. "It's very isolated," Mr. Hughes said. "It's 13 hours from New York. You fly in to El Paso and then drive three hours south to Marfa. You can get to a lot of places in 13 hours."

Mr. Hughes eventually shipped the truck to New York. His main residence is in Brooklyn. But, he said, driving the truck "around the city is just crazy." It has no radio or air-conditioning. The engine is a 360 V-8 with a 4-speed manual transmission, and it's geared very low.

"It does not go much more than 75 miles per hour," he said.

Here in Putnam Valley, Mr. Hughes does not ask much of the truck aside from hauling firewood and some light construction. Like the art of its first owner, he noted, the truck is quite minimalist.

"It's not more than what you need," he said.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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